Patriots' D is back, along with Super Bowl hopes

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- New England Patriots fans might not believe it, especially given how difficult it was to see through the fog Sunday night, but the Patriots' defense dominated the Atlanta Falcons.

Yes, it happened.

The Patriots played what was easily their best defensive game of the season, which was unexpected considering they entered without two of their top three cornerbacks, Stephon Gilmore and Eric Rowe. Career special-teams standout Johnson Bademosi stepped in, and to the surprise of many, the Patriots stomped all over QB Matt Ryan, WR Julio Jones and the Falcons, 23-7, in a lopsided Super Bowl LI rematch.

"We’re excited because we finally see our hard work come into show," said Patriots safety Duron Harmon, one of the team's captains. "We still did some things that we know we need to learn from, [but] I just feel like the energy that we played with, the excitement, how fast and physical we played kind of covered up a lot of the mistakes that we made. We just got to build on that.”

The effort sets up a highly anticipated clash next Sunday when the surging Los Angeles Chargers visit the 5-2 Patriots. The Chargers have won three straight after shutting out the Denver Broncos on Sunday, Denver's first shutout loss since 1992.

Here’s the biggest takeaway for the Patriots: With a defensive performance like they turned in Sunday night, their championship hopes are decisively back in play.

In fairness, it wasn’t as if they were extinguished, because they have Tom Brady and coach Bill Belichick -- two of the best ever in their respective positions -- but it was hard to imagine the Pats repeating as Super Bowl winners unless the defense found a way to play with more consistency and stopped giving up the big play.

"We just started communicating better," Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler said. "It started the first day of practice this week, so we had good preparation. We knew [the Falcons] were going to come in here fired up after two straight losses, so we just had to match their intensity."

The Patriots' defense entered Sunday night as the only team in NFL history to allow a 300-yard passer in six straight games, but that streak was snapped with authority against the Falcons, who were 0-for-5 on third down and 1-for-2 on fourth down in the first half, then were stopped on another fourth down in an impressive fourth-quarter goal-line stand. The excellence extended to special teams, which had a big blocked field goal by Cassius Marsh in the first quarter to keep the game scoreless.

"I thought they did a good job. You had seen some of the things that they had given up earlier in the year. I thought they played a lot more coverage," Ryan said. "Obviously, we got some man in certain situations, but I thought they played a lot of two-shell coverages, dropped eight defenders quite a bit. It allowed us to make some plays kind of extending plays outside of the pocket, but I thought they did a good job of keeping things in front of them for the most part."

The Falcons, seemingly still adjusting under first-year offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, helped the cause with some curious playcalling and an inability to get the ball to their playmakers. But take nothing away from the Patriots' short-handed D, which played with hard-to-miss emotion and passion on an electric night in Gillette Stadium, which was buzzing from the pregame right until the final Brady kneel-down.

In some ways, it brought back memories of a 28-3, divisional-round playoff win over the Pittsburgh Steelers on Jan. 5, 1997, a game that was played in the fog at Foxboro Stadium. It was hard to see what was happening on the field that day, just as it was at times on Sunday night.

But this is what Patriots fans needed to see to know that championship hopes are still alive -- and perhaps what players themselves needed to see, as well.

The Patriots’ defense is back with authority.